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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Political Struggle of Rural Migrant Hostesses for First-Class Citizenship in Postsocialist China TIANTIAN ZHENG Within the 50-plus years of Communist rule, China’s sex industry has gone from bust to boom. During the Maoist era, the Communist Party attempted to level previous class distinctions and promote its egalitarian ideology by eliminating all forms of conspicuous consumption and “reactionary” leisure activities, including the consumption of commercial sex (Wang, 1995). The time, form, and content of leisure activities fell under the scrutiny and supervision of the state, and leisure itself was conceptualized as a form of collective action. In political indoctrination classes, unsanctioned leisure activities were denounced as capitalist behavior, and state propaganda advocated the ethos of “hard work and simple living” (Wang, 1995, p. 156). Since 1978, the state’s pro-consumption stance has opened the way for the reemergence of nightclubs and other leisure sites. To avoid any residual negative connotations left over from the previous era, when nightclubs, dance halls, and bars were condemned as emblems of a nonproletarian and decadent bourgeois lifestyle nightclubs , in the current post-Mao period such places are referred to as karaoke bars, karaoke plazas, or liange ting (literally, “singing practice halls”). These new consumption sites are prominent in the more economically prosperous Special Economic Zones (SEZs) (Jian, 2001). Visitors are mainly middle-aged businessmen, government officials , police officers, and foreign investors. Clients can partake of the services offered by hostesses and at the same time engage in “social interactions” (yingchou) that help cement “relationships” (guanxi) with their business partners or their patrons in the government 347 348 Tiantian Zheng (Wang, 1995). Hostesses play an indispensable role in the rituals of these male-centered worlds of business and politics (Zheng, 2003). The hostesses or escorts who work at karaoke bars are referred to by the Chinese government as sanpei xiaojie, literally, “young women who accompany men in three ways.” These “ways” are generally understood to include varying combinations of alcohol consumption, dancing, and singing. Sexual services are an additional, unstated part of the work these women are expected to perform. These women, mainly 17 to 23 years of age, form a steadily growing contingent of illegal sex workers. Hostesses first emerged in modest numbers at the end of the 1980s. Their numbers expanded rapidly in the mid-1990s, as karaoke bars became favored sites not just for male recreation but also for transactions between male businessmen and political elites. Paradoxically, the state agents responsible for policing karaoke bars comprise one of the main segments of the karaoke bar customer base. The majority of these hostesses come from China’s countryside. Of the 2 hundred hostesses with whom I worked, only 4 were from cities. They were extremely averse to exposing their rural origins. At the beginning of my field research, hostesses always told me that they were from large, metropolitan cities, such as Dalian, Shanghai, and Anshan. It was only after becoming close friends that they confided to me that they were actually from rural areas on the outskirts of these cities. During 20 months of fieldwork in Dalian, I lived and worked with the hostesses as a hostess myself. I lived with the hostesses in a karaoke bar for a year, where I worked as a hostess serving drinks, carrying out conversations, singing songs, playing games, and dancing with customers, with the exception of sexual services. My research sample includes approximately 2 hundred bar hostesses in 10 karaoke bars. I was intensively involved in 3 karaoke bars categorized respectively as high, middle, and low class. In the first section of this article, I explicate how rural migrants obtain political identities as second-class citizens. In the second section, I discuss how rural migrant women’s cultural and social identities are naturalized as derogatory second-class citizens in the media. Their bodies are a site where the imperatives of state politics become legible. In the third section, I demonstrate how such a derogatory cultural representation , while tying the hostesses to the constructed identities in a constraining way, paradoxically leaves some room for the hostesses to maneuver. Specifically, I argue that rural migrant hostesses perform this image as a means to accumulate the accoutrements for legitimate first-class citizenship, which is synonymous with elite status. 349 Political Struggle of Rural Migrant Hostesses Migration and Political Second-Class Citizenship in Post-Mao Dalian In 1958, the Chinese government initiated the household registration system, classifying the national population into mutually exclusive urban-rural...


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